The Western Roman Empire is generally said to have fallen in 476 CE, which was in of itself part of a long gradual decline as the Empire fell for a wide variety of internal and external reasons which are beyond the scope of this article and indeed are still extensively debated by historians. The central Government broke down, barbarians tribes such as the Saxons and the Franks and the Goths invaded and took over and many urban centers that grew under Roman rule withered on the vine as their people fled to the countryside and a fair bit of higher learning was lost in Western Europe. For the sake of curating this marked the end of the Classical Period period which lasted until about 1000 or so called The Dark Ages.
During this time warlords carved out new kingdoms, handing conquered lands out to their favored warriors as they went who'd tax peasants and used that money to buy Mail and helmets and Horses, gradually morphing into the first Knights. They also made alliances with the Catholic Church, which arose from the ashes of Rome offering it's services in placating the peasants and doing things that required book learning in exchange for their aide in spreading the faith, a say in the way things were run and various privileges. Around 793 the Vikings began to show up and would remain an active element for centuries to come. Eventually things gradually stabilized and Europe moved into the High Middle Ages.
- This is an western European thing. Byzantium, China, India, Persia and the eventually the Islamic Caliphates were on the whole doing pretty well at this time. Japan was coming into it's own as a well developed civilization with the Nara and Heian Periods following China's model.
- Long story short term "Dark Age" has become rather contentious in recent decades among historians and at the very least it has been judged that people from the Renaissance onward overestimated in how severe the fall was. Many prefer the far less loaded Early Medieval Period to describe this period of history.
- The real reason we call this period the “Dark Age” is due to the relative lack of writings we have in comparison to the ages coming before and after. Between the high political instability and drop in literacy, the only people making books at this time were monks. That’s not to say it was a total intellectual vacuum; the University was invented in this time period (in the caliphate), and would build a network of schools that would really come into prominence once the Renaissance hits.
- There are other periods of time labeled "Dark Ages" such as the Greek Dark Ages between the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Classical Period. Basically whenever an advanced civilization regresses a decent bit due to general decline or some catastrophe. And like the previous point, we know almost nothing about what happened during these periods, especially so for the Bronze Age.
The appeal of the Dark Age
How do you like your medieval fantasy? Do you like it to be harsher, grittier and cruder side? Then the Dark Ages are a good place to mine for ideas. People in shattered isolated settlements where buildings are rough while a king theoretically reigns but the power lies in the hands of local nobles and knights. Viking raiders on longships searching for gold and thralls raiding who do battle with scruffy knights in dirty scale and maile who are but marginally more civilized than the pagan barbarians that they do battle. Both of which are more likely to preserve their deeds in song than with words written down in books. A few monks copying down a few ancient texts that they can not read for future generations. You can even work in a bit of a post apocalyptic vibe with a Dark Age setting, where people build crude wooden fortresses and barn like halls exist alongside the remains of more impressive structures of stone from a now fallen empire. Civilization once stood here and it might do so again, but now is an age of turmoil and the sword.
Not to say that these guys did not have a creative side, this period is tied in with celtic spiral patterns and tapistries.
Dark inspired Games, Factions and Settings
This is one of the most used settings in all fantasy. While usually taking a fair degree of artistic liberties, most fantasy authors use the aesthetics of feudalism in one way or another: poor peasants, luxurious (for the time) and corrupt nobility courts stabbing each other in the back, dirty and decrepit cities, barbarians pillaging the remnants of the old empires, a nebulous fight in the frontiers (usually based of the muslim or mongol invasions during the Middle Ages)... The Kingdom of Bretonnia in Warhammer FB is clearly inspired in a late version of the Middle Ages' Kingdom of France and/or England, whereas the Empire is closer to Early Modern Age's Holy Roman Empire. The human kingdoms in The Lord of The Rings also follow a similar aesthetic, although much less grounded in reality and more in fantasy.
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|